hese days everyone’s got a blog, but few who have a blog can blog very well. The blogosphere, at least within the realm of indie rock, seems content to sit behind a keyboard, rewrite press releases, and piggyback on others’ work, without the smallest adherence to style, substance, and (most importantly) modesty. It’s a selfish lot to say the least, which is why The Catbirdseat has become a breath of fresh air among a community defined by its self-righteousness. Ryan Catbird, the founder of said site, is a blogger who’s, for once, giving something back, something tangible and precious.
With only seven releases under his belt, Catbird’s infant record label, Catbird Records, has already begun to defy the traditional indie rock model. By laboring over hundreds of hand-crafted, hand-numbered covers, encouraging buyers to tip the artists, and signing an eclectic mix of bands from all over the world, he’s countered the burgeoning culture of digital downloads and illegal filesharing with incentives to continue lovin’ the old-fashioned compact disc at a highly reasonable fee (usually less than $10 per release). You may have only heard of his label’s most buzz-worthy album, Lanzafame, by Reading, England’s Tap Tap, but further plundering reveals that Catbird has an ear for the finest pop the blogosphere has to offer, from Springfield, Missouri’s little-band-that-could, Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, to the grandiose bedroom folk of Sweden’s anonymous boy wonder, Pet Politics.
What’s your background in the indie music universe?
I came into indie rock in the early 90’s when “indie rock” meant Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, and Sebadoh…and I suppose I’ve been pretty much stuck on that genre ever since. Since I’m a middle-class white male, and since I already had the right glasses and the right shoes, I guess that makes sense.
How did the Catbirdseat blog begin?
I started the Catbirdseat site back in 2002 just to have an easy way to share my listening habits with my friends. Every time I’d bump into someone, they’d always ask what I’d been listening to, so I figured, hey, I’ll just put it all up on the web and they can check in on it whenever they felt like it.
What made you decide to start Catbird Records?
To my surprise, the Catbirdseat site had, after a number of years, attained some degree of visibility in the online music world, and I started thinking about how I might be able to use that visibility to actually help out some of the smaller artists that I was diggin’ on. So, in early ’05, I started kicking around the idea of maybe pulling together a comp or something, but I soon decided that the world needed another comp like it needed a new ozone hole, so I just tabled the idea. It wasn’t until several months later, when I first heard Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, that I suddenly felt absolutely compelled to dust off the label idea, if only to put those guys out.
Those first few CBR releases were just funded out of my pocket, but late last year (after much phone-call-arm-twisting by a particular ad network), I finally decided (after almost 4 years) to integrate ads onto the Catbirdseat site. It’s not something I had ever even remotely considered before, but I suddenly realized I could sort of “Robin Hood” that shit, and so now the label is now 100% funded by ad revenue.
How did you happen to find the artists that make up your roster?
Well, it all started with SSLYBY, but the story of how we came together is, frankly, an incredibly long and somewhat bizarre tale, so I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, we got hooked up through a mutual acquaintance. As for all of the other bands, I pretty much just found them all through various place on the web. And by “various places,” I mean blogs or MySpace.
What was the motivation to make each release handmade?
It’s true what they say; the CD really is a dying format. It’s sort of become like the envelope your letter comes in, or the carton that your orange juice comes in; it’s just the container for holding the stuff you actually want. So I wanted to make it so that there would be some appeal in actually owning the disc. To that end, every release gets some degree of a handmade touch, whether it’s a fully hand-fabricated release, or simply a bonus disc in a simple hand-printed sleeve. It’s my hope that this makes the releases a little more special than just another same-old same-old disc to throw on the pile and forget about.
How has the response been to your unique invention to “tip” the artists? Are people doing this on a regular basis?
I have to say, the “tip the artist” thing has turned out to be a very unexpected success. I’d say greater than 50% of customers do the tip, and actually the number is probably closer to 60 or 70%. It’s nice because it allows me to keep the releases at a fairly low price, without penalizing the artist for that low-profit margin.
As a blogger and as an indie label mogul, what’s your opinion of file sharing? With the advent of person-to-person programs, torrents, podcasts, and bloggers like yourself posting free MP3s, in what way do you think it has been beneficial/harmful to the actual artists?
I don’t personally have a problem with filesharing, but then again, even if I did, what the hell can you do about it? I mean, it’s like saying you have a problem with those trees giving off all the free shade…what are you gonna’ do? You gonna’ cut down every tree on the planet? Good luck with that.
It does kinda suck, though, to check the numbers on Oinks and IT, and see that the Tap Tap album has been downloaded more than twice as many times as the number of discs that have been sold. But, again, what can you do? You just gotta’ figure that maybe those downloads will make some new fans, and those fans will buy the next disc, or go see the band on tour, or etc.
What is the future of Catbird Records? What releases are on the horizon?
We’ve got an amazing full-length coming up from a London band called the Ghosts, and we’re just lining up a limited EP from a band of acoustical Brooklynites. In addition to those, there are a few things I’m really hoping will come to fruition in the New Year, including a release from an elusive bedroom/home recorder that I’ve been pursuing for a damn long time, and a sweet pop disc from a French guy who never responds to any of my e-mails.
This 8 member enclave from Gothenburg, Sweden is bound to be Catbird’s dark horse; conjuring up the cut-and-paste collage party via the Go Team, but suturing enough elements of psych and surf to their sugary instrumental excursions to ascend past the dance floor.
CBR 005: Tap Tap – Lanzafame
In a perfect world Tap Tap’s brittle and nimble take on post-slack would be considered a microscopic masterpiece. Lanzafame is a deft balance of makeshift lo-fi eccentricities and ambitious songwriting, almost like indie-rock was started from scratch.
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